Two-fer Tuesday

In order to keep you guessing, and so this won’t take until April 24th since that’s really kind of ridiculous, I’m posting Chapter 3 of: When the Stars Walk Backwards. And since I like to include a little disclaimer with each posting – to save face, as it were – again keep in mind this was written 10 years ago. It’s a tale filled with cliches, angst, and over-the-top stuff most writers tackle when they’re first starting out. I take heart in knowing how much I’ve grown since this was written, how much more I’ve learned. I also take a little satisfaction knowing that the mistakes and goofiness in this first serious novel are the same mistakes many well known and highly sucessful authors made when THEY were first starting out.

So that means . . . I’m normal! šŸ˜€

In this chapter is one of the many common cliches newbie writers enjoy – The Shower Scene. Yessir, I not only wrote descriptive shower scenes, but I added a hotsprings on this planet and let my MC’s enjoy it often. So, in the words of that dude from Jurrasic Park “Hold on to your butts.”

Chapter 3

“Did you mean that?” Bryce looked up after securing himself in the co-pilot’s seat. “About needing a deputy?”

“Every word of it.” Mac flipped the door-lock and secured the hatch, then glanced back at the younger man. His face was the picture of conflict, trying hard not to show his feelings, but failing. “They appointed me their Head of Security, more of a token job than anything, really.” He sat down and began the sequence for prepping the shuttle. “But eventually, they’re going to need someone to police them.” Bryce was watching the instruments in front of him, but Mac could tell he wasn’t seeing anything. His eyes were unfocused, trying to comprehend a million new things at once. “In order to keep these people in line, I’m going to have to learn everything I can about this new environment. And, the way I see it, you’re the only one around who knows the place. So the smart thing for me to do is keep you close.” When the engines reached lift-off capacity, he set the fuel level and took the controls in both hands. “I figured having you as a deputy would be the easiest way to do it. Unless you have objections.”

Bryce looked up quickly and shook his head. “No. No, I just — I don’t want you to do this because of them.”

“Don’t worry.” Mac eased the shuttle off the ground, then let it begin to ascend gently before moving forward. “My reasons are purely selfish.”

They left the complex far behind as the shuttle lifted higher into the atmosphere. Mac glanced at his passenger and found him watching the landscape below, no fear or apprehensive body language visible. He’d either flown before, or he was able to allow curiosity to overtake fear when it suited him. A good quality in any man, and highly desirable in someone Mac was talking into showing him around this new world. It was an attitude that remained when they broke through the canopy of Oblivion’s atmosphere and entered the twilight of upper orbit. A few miles past the southern hemisphere and they’d achieve the altitude of true space.

Bryce was taking it all in quietly, and Mac could see his attitude was one of ease, maybe even growing confidence. The kid had been through a whirlwind of changes overnight and so far had come out pretty well, all things considered. Couple that with what Mac knew could only have been a few hours of uneasy sleep last night, and he wasn’t surprised breakfast with seventy-three strangers had been too difficult a challenge.

But how his own world had changed so quickly, he was still trying to understand. Experience had taught him to not only expect the unexpected, but deal with it. And deal with it he was. But he hadn’t counted on Bryce Keegan. Mac had never been one to take in strays, but if anyone ever needed a big brother, this kid qualified. He was obviously capable of surviving alone. Even if he couldn’t recall more than the last ten years of his life, he’d been able to keep himself alive, keep the equipment in the complex functioning, maintain crops, and generally manage an entire planet alone. Still, he was no match for a large group of frightened people looking for answers. Mac’s sense of justice compelled him to step in, and see if he could get this brother thing to work out for once.

“It looks almost familiar.”

Bryce’s statement brought Mac out of his thoughts in time to adjust the shuttle’s approach to the Kensington. “It’s an old surplus supply ship.” He eased the shuttle up next to the airlock and felt the clunk of metal on metal as the hatches met for the last time. “Not unlike the ship your group came out in.” That was probably the reason behind Bryce’s apparent lack of fear. “Do you remember the trip?” He motioned to the seat straps and began to undo his own.

“Not really.” Bryce unbuckled himself from the co-pilot’s seat and stood up, walking toward the hatch as he waited for Mac. “I remember hallways. And my room–I remember my bunk.” He ran a hand over his long dark hair and shook his head, gazing off into inner space while artificial gravity generators hummed beneath their feet. “And stars. I remember spending hours staring at the stars. Did you do that?”

Mac smiled and typed in the code to release the hatch doors. Maybe Bryce finally realized it was just the two of them here, and that there weren’t three hundred people waiting on the other side of the door? Being alone seemed to be relaxing him quite a bit. He might even start to open up.

“I’ve spent most of my life in space.” The hatch doors opened with a soft whoosh. “And I never got tired of looking at stars.” Mac led the way through the airlock, then into the Kensington. Once inside the larger ship, they were able to walk side by side on the long trek to the command center. Several times along the way, Bryce stopped and glanced around, almost as if he was looking for something.

“These things can give you the creeps when they’re empty like this.” Mac stepped through the hatch and into the piloting section of the Kensington. The planet below was a huge, blue monolith filling the view ports in front of them.

“I kinda like it.” Bryce stepped closer to the screens and gazed at his planet. “Is it true there’s no sound in space?”

Mac set the control box on top of the navigational consol and flipped the clasps open. “For the most part, yeah.” Reluctantly, he allowed his thoughts to drift back. Feelings of cold isolation coursed over his spine, then in an instant they were gone, replaced by the sounds of screaming metal. He shook himself to clear his mind and noticed Bryce watching him. “If you’re ever alone with no input from a headset or machine noise to distract you, then yeah, it’s perfectly silent. You could be right beside the drive engines and not hear a thing.” Mac cleared his throat and started to remove the instruments he needed from the case. “Problem is finding that kind of solitude. If you’re in a fighter, you’ve got the instruments constantly beeping at you, or communications coming through. Even when they’re quiet, you get a white noise from the headsets.” Bryce wasn’t the only one with memories to deal with. Trouble was, Mac wanted to forget his.

“They disconnected Five.” The quiet words were directed at the floor.

Mac stopped what he was doing and met the younger man’s eyes when he looked up again. “That’s something we should talk about.”

Bryce nodded and looked at his hands. “It doesn’t really matter.”

“No, it does matter. That computer was a big part of your life, and a group of strangers just came in and switched him off. But trust me, they had good reason.”

“Yeah.” Bryce reached up and pushed a strand of hair from his face. “We can talk about it later.”

Mac glanced at the controls strewn around the console Bryce was leaning against and shrugged slightly. “If that’s what you want.”

The younger man nodded and took a deep breath, the look of resignation in his lavender-blue eyes changing just a bit.

“Listen, let’s get this tank set for destruction and take a walk-through, okay?”

Bryce reached out and picked up one of the components. “Is this a directional input?”

“As a matter of fact, it is.” Mac removed the last of the parts from his case and held up the largest of the pieces. “It goes into this, and sets the adjustments for the Kensington’s attitude thrusters.” He handed Bryce the master cylinder he was holding. “There’s no up, down, or sideways out here, but when you’re orbiting, you set yourself in line with the planet just so your passengers don’t get dizzy if they look out. Where did you learn about this stuff?”

Bryce examined the cylinder and shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. Five used to teach me a lot of useless stuff to keep me occupied, I think.” He handed the equipment back.

“Great. You can give me a hand, then.” Mac smiled and pointed to the access panel. “Pull that open and let’s get to it.”

What Bryce had considered ‘useless stuff’, Mac discovered was a gold mine of information. All he lacked was hands-on experience, but his willingness to learn and quick mind got the job done in less than half the time it would have taken Mac to do it alone. When they finished, they walked the entire length of the massive vessel to check for anything left to salvage before sending the Kensington on a one-way trip into the sun.
During their tour, Bryce asked several questions about the ship, the science behind the Particle Launch responsible for their journey, and the reasons for destroying the Kensington instead of leaving it in orbit. He avoided asking about the people Mac had traveled with or what they had thought of Oblivion when they arrived. For the sake of Bryce’s openness and good mood, Mac willingly stayed on whatever subject he chose. Now and then, he would lapse into a silence that lasted until Mac could find something casual to say or ask. He didn’t want to leave the younger man in his solitude for more than ten minutes at a time, for fear he’d withdraw back inside himself again. During that time, he found Bryce to be bright, highly intelligent, and for the most part, unafraid. Something he was sure would change again when they returned, if he was forced back into a corner of the basement for privacy.

They found quite a bit of leftover wiring, circuit boards, panels and a few tools that had been forgotten in the rush to empty out the ship, all of which they carried to the shuttle and secured in the upper bay. After stowing the last of the salvage they found, Mac glanced around the smaller ship and nodded as his vision of what the Aloft would soon become filled his mind.

“Do you think this ship will fit on that rise to the south of the complex? I thought we could use the engines when we land to dig in the bottom level on one side, leave the upper section above ground, but sort of wall up this side. That would put the ramp at a more gentle angle.”

Bryce shot him a puzzled look, eyebrows creased. “What do you mean?”

Mac grinned, then motioned for Bryce to follow. To the left of the cockpit, a spiral staircase led down to the lower level, originally used as a living area during long space missions. The stairs opened out beside the galley.

“This shuttle used to be home to two people for months at a time during exploration missions.” They walked past the galley and into what was now a temporary seating section. Rows of bolted-down seats filled the main living area, and a few single seats even stretched into the cubby hole outside the second berth. “I plan to restore it down here, get rid of these temporary seats and bring in some furniture that I brought.” He pulled open the door to the first berth and pointed inside. “With the shelves and beds back, they’re really pretty nice rooms. And the sanitary unit is plenty big enough. I want to plumb it for fresh water.”

Bryce glanced into the bathroom, then looked at Mac. “You’re going to live here?” The look of confusion was gone, replaced by amazement.

“Yeah.” Mac smiled. “It’s not much to look at now, but by the time we’re through fixing it up, it’ll be the perfect place. A little unconventional, maybe, but practical. The upper level can be office space, a work shop, storage, and even a meeting room.”

“We?” Bryce followed him back to the galley.

“It has two staterooms, plenty of private space. You’re my deputy, after all. We’ll have the office upstairs, there’s plenty of room there. The galley’s pretty big once we clear out these shipping brackets and get the table back in. I’m not a bad cook, actually.” Mac stopped inside the kitchen, turning to look at Bryce. The kid still looked a little puzzled as he gazed around the lower level, but there was a definite look of hope in his eyes. And a small hint of fear. Mac shrugged to help ease Bryce into accepting. “Beats the hell out of the basement, don’t you think?”

Slowly, he nodded. “Yeah, I guess I could handle that.”

“Good.” Mac gestured to the stairs. “Let’s finish what we came to do and get going.”

They walked back to the command center, discussing the easiest way to dig the Aloft into the soft dirt of the small hillside fifty yards south of the complex. Mac had planned it out pretty well in his head already, and only had to make a few small adjustments after Bryce explained the placement of the complex’s plumbing. Fresh water was piped in from the lake behind the settlement and could be tapped into with relative ease, giving Mac the unlimited fresh water that had always been his dream.

The auto pilot controls were hooked up and ready, needing only the final commands that would take the Kensington on a collision course with the sun. Mac had just finished typing in the commands when he looked up and saw all the color drain from Bryce’s face.

“What’s wrong?” Alarmed, he looked around the room for the source of panic.

“How long have we been up here?” Bryce’s voice was a whisper and he began to back up, staring at the view port.

“Just about four hours.” Mac looked out the window, but saw nothing more than the planet and the large moon now hanging above it. “Bryce, it’s only noon down at the complex. We can see the moon because we’re in space.” Was that what was upsetting him?

Bryce swallowed hard, then looked away from the screen with obvious difficulty. He stared at the floor and nodded. “We should go.”

Mac looked outside again, still seeing nothing but Oblivion and its single, oversized moon. He wanted to ask what he was missing out there that had the younger man so terrified, but there was sweat beading up on Bryce’s forehead. Whatever he was seeing, or imagining, was real enough to leave him pale and trembling. “We’re done.” He set the controls for a thirty minute delay and flipped the power switch. “Let’s go.”

Bryce nodded, but didn’t leave the room until Mac joined him near the door. They walked together back to the shuttle in silence, Mac trying to hurry, hoping their quick departure would return Bryce’s happier mood, while Bryce very obviously tried to keep himself from running back to the shuttle. Once onboard, they could no longer see the moon from the angle of the smaller vessel and Bryce seemed to calm down a bit. To distract him further, Mac kept up a running tutorial of the instrument panel during their descent, showing him the controls they would continue to use for mapping, communications, weather tracking and other record-keeping needs, and set the onboard computer to respond to his commands as well as Mac’s. It wasn’t until they entered the atmosphere and were again bathed in the full sun of Oblivion’s day that Bryce relaxed again.

Mac contacted the complex, warning everyone that he was going to land on the hill designated for his new home. The shuttle’s engines would do the digging, gouging out a niche in the soft earth that would slope up the near-side of the ship, but the process was guaranteed to kick up a lot of dirt. By the time they were hovering over the site, everyone had cleared away from that side of the buildings and covered the remaining outdoor equipment with tarps.

“Well, here’s hoping I calculated this right.”

“You did, I checked.” Bryce was looking out the side view port at the ground several yards below them.

Mac laughed shortly, then shrugged. “Okay, then, we can’t both be wrong.”

With one eye on the panel and one eye out the view port, Mac began the delicate maneuvering that used the shuttle’s engines to dig a slope in the ground. Massive amounts of dust and dirt soon made it impossible to see through the windows, but the instruments all read clear. Within minutes, he was landing Aloft for the last time. As the engines powered down, both he and Bryce stayed where they were, silently judging their success.

“I think we did it.” Mac smiled and unhooked his seat straps, standing up. The floor was level, the ship securely in place. He turned to Bryce and found him smiling for the first time.

“I think you’re right.”

Mac was about to comment when they heard a rapping on the shuttle door. Bryce’s smile vanished immediately, but Mac motioned for him to come to the entrance. “There’s a locking panel on both sides.” He flipped down the small panel next to the door, revealing a keypad. “The code is 4859.” He typed in those numbers, then rested his finger on the Activate button. “That’s new as of right now, so only you and I can lock or unlock this door, and the ship, got it?” Bryce nodded and Mac hit the button, opening the door.

“Brennan, how’d it go?” Commander Alexander was the only one waiting on the other side, standing on top of the ramp. Other people milled around below, admiring the shuttle’s position in the ground, but no one else seemed interested in entering the ship they’d all flown down on the day before.

“Fine, Ben. The Kensington should vaporize sometime around midnight tonight, I’d say.” Mac stepped aside and motioned for Ben to come inside. Bryce positioned himself conveniently behind and to the left of him, watching the commander. “I hope we didn’t make too much of a mess planting this thing.”

Ben shrugged, smiling. “Just some dust, nothing that won’t blow away. So, you’re really going to live here, then?”

“Yes, we are.” Mac stepped inside and began to unstrap the bundles he and Bryce had brought down, motioning for his new partner to unhook the opposite side. “It was designed to be lived in, you know. Once we get her back to her original shape, she’ll make a fine home.”

“We?” Ben looked at Mac, then Bryce. “Are you going to be living here, too?”

“He’s my deputy, Ben,” Mac answered for him. “This shuttle’s plenty big enough for two, and then some.”

Ben glanced around the open bay, nodding. “Yes, I imagine it is.”

“Besides, if Bryce ever gets sick of me, he’s free to kick me out.” Mac slapped his partner on the arm and winked at the look he was given, then nodded to Ben and followed him out the door with an armload of circuit boards. Bryce was right behind them both with a load of his own.

The shuttle’s ramp was in a direct line fifty yards from a side entrance leading to the main hallway of the complex’s southern building. There, they found the surplus storage area and deposited their salvaged circuit boards.

Ben held the doors open while they deposited their load. “Bryce, I have to compliment you on the lists you gave our botanists, they’re very detailed. Did you put them together?”

Bryce stood and pushed hair out of his eyes, glancing at Mac. “No, not all of it. Five already had a lot there.” He swallowed, and Mac could see his eyes dart to the now-dead monitor in the corner of the large storage room. “He made me keep the files up-to-date.”

“Well, it’s been very helpful. Saved us months of research.”

Mac finished placing his armload on a shelf. Bryce was standing right beside him, keeping an eye on the commander. It was almost as if he knew what Ben had been considering just the other night, and was keeping a wary distance. But he couldn’t possibly have heard the discussion, since he was in the basement at the time, and they had already disconnected Five. Still, if it came down to it, Mac would tell Bryce what the command staff had been discussing. Since it concerned his life, he had a right to know.

“Well, we’d better find where Eddie put our furniture.”

“Oh, before I forget, the kitchens have been running full time. All the cooks and horticulturists are climbing over each other trying out these new foods and recipes, so there’s a meal ready any time of the day or night. At least until the newness wears off.” Ben smiled and stepped away from the door. “But I would like to meet with you to discuss some of the other concerns, such as livestock, weather, terrain, things of that nature.”

“Yeah, okay.” Bryce nodded and fell into step very close behind Mac as they proceeded down the hall farther into the complex.

“That can wait a few days, can’t it, Ben? We’ve got some work to do ourselves.”

“Oh, I’m sure it can.” Ben smiled, glancing over his shoulder at Bryce. He stopped at a corridor and nodded toward a door at the end. “I’ve got plenty of that myself. We’ll talk later, then, when you two have that office of yours straightened out. It’s going to be another week before anyone is ready to begin exploring.”

Mac watched Ben for a moment as he walked down the hall, then turned to Bryce and pointed toward the back of the building . “I think Eddie stacked all the crates and tools in that covered area outside. We’ll have to gut the shuttle out before we can replace the panels and desks.” Bryce glanced down the hall and nodded willingly. “This is going to be a few days’ hard work. You sure you don’t mind? You’re not doing this because I talked you into it, are you?” The last thing he wanted was to find out this kid was too scared to say no.

“No,” Bryce replied immediately. “No, it’s fine, I don’t mind.” He swallowed and glanced around at the various people coming and going down the wide corridor. “Like you said, I don’t think I could keep sleeping in the basement.”

Mac smiled and nodded once. “Okay. Let’s get to work then.”

They found the tools next to stacks of crates all marked with Mac’s tags and labels, then went to work removing the storage rails and hooks the Aloft had been fitted with. Bryce had no trouble at all with the tools Mac gave him, so they quickly fell into a rhythm of unbolting, removing, and stacking the metal fixtures. Now and then, when the stack grew too tall, Mac would gather them up and haul them to the area designated for scrap recycling. One of the engineers was already setting up the huge reclamation unit that would eventually handle everything from metal to cloth fibers, returning them to a reusable state, or something altogether different.

During one trip out, Mac made a stop in the mess hall to pick up lunch. The room was as busy as Ben had said, with people milling in and out as they grew hungry. Even with a constant flow of diners, the large room seemed to be full at any given moment. He found a tray and stacked up an assortment of meats, fruits and breads that he could identify from Bryce’s morning lecture, snagged two large bottles of water, then squeezed through the corridor and out a side exit, around the back of the building, and back to the shuttle.

By the time he returned to the ship, there was another large stack of metal racks near the door, and sounds were coming from below. Mac took the stairs down and found his partner removing the third seat from the front row. Sweat was beginning to soak Bryce’s shirt as it had been Mac’s. “How about a break, huh? I brought us a late lunch.”

Bryce pulled the chair up and added it to the small stack he’d already started, then wiped his forehead and looked at Mac. “Oh, yeah.” He ran his hands through his shoulder-length hair while he walked to the galley, pulling it back into a ponytail. “What time is it?” From his pocket came a leather strap he used to tie the hair back.

“A little after two o’clock.” Mac set the food on a section of the galley counter that protruded out into a bar, then pulled off his shirt. “We’ll have to adjust the ship’s atmospheric controls, I don’t think we’ll get the view ports open anytime soon.” He’d been trying to figure out a way to convert the air-tight windows into something they could open and close, but he hadn’t come up with anything yet.

“It’s better that you don’t.” Bryce reached out for a bottle of water and a piece of round, blue fruit, and sat down.

Mac tossed his shirt over one of the temporary seats and picked up the other bottle, twisting the cap off. Bryce’s face had gone dark again and he was studying the fruit in his hand. “It’s probably too much work, anyway. We can alter the recyclers to vent with outside air.” He sat on the chair next to his discarded shirt and took a long drink of the bright blue water. The feel of the cool liquid sliding down his parched throat was heaven. Imagining even more water, cascading over his body in the shower for as long as he wanted to stand there, was almost too much.

Bryce ate quietly and Mac’s tiredness made it easy to follow suit. He made himself a sandwich out of the bread and meats, then sat back down and ate, occasionally glancing around the living quarters as another thought occurred to him. His deputy was proving to be handy with tools and a very hard worker, willing to tackle the sweaty task of gutting their new home without complaint. Mac half-expected the kid to freak out and refuse the offer of sharing the Aloft, but he knew the only choice was either the basement corner he’d found last night, or one of the crowded, dormitory-style rooms the other colonists were bunking down in. Taking Bryce on had surprised Mac, more than anything else he’d done. But it was the right thing to do, for both of them. Alone, the younger man was no match for the people who would soon press the issue of his memory. And having taken a stand against them on that issue, Mac might soon find himself very much alone. It made sense that they be alone together.

“Did they replace Five?”

Mac looked up, slightly surprised by the break in the silence. Bryce was picking at the cap of the bottle in his hand, his voice quiet. “Yes, they did.” This wasn’t going to be easy, but Mac couldn’t help feeling good about him asking. “It wasn’t something they’d planned to do, Bryce. We got the data while we were still on approach, and found some…problems.” How do you tell someone their sole companion for ten years had gone insane?

“He lies.” Bryce looked up, meeting Mac’s gaze. “I used to think computers couldn’t do that, but I know he does, sometimes.”

Mac sighed and leaned forward, setting his water bottle down. “Years ago, when they first had success with these artificial intelligence units, they had some problems. Manufacturing something with a sense of self is asking for trouble, in my opinion. But they didn’t ask me.” Bryce nodded, and set his empty bottle on the step beside him. “We found the records Five was keeping had been heavily encrypted, which goes against everything he was designed for.”

“He always told me his memory was damaged. Was that true?” Bryce’s face took on a determined look. “Did he remember what happened to everyone?”

“We think so.” Mac shook his head with the remembered frustration of pouring over those files with Lise for so many hours. “He’s got every day accounted for since he was brought down and turned on, but most of the information is scrambled. Ben–Commander Alexander–and some of the others think it was done on purpose. They think the computer…well, that it went insane over the years, assuming too much responsibility.”

Bryce looked down at his hands. “There were times I thought he knew, but he would never tell me.” He started shaking his head slowly, still looking down. “Sometimes I was afraid of him.”

Mac sighed quietly and nodded. He was taking this pretty well, but it seemed as if he had known it might come. “The computer these people brought is different than Five. They make them better now, more along the lines of the older computers, with far less independence.” He paused, glancing over at the instrument panel on the wall of the shuttle. “I’ve got an independent unit in here, very basic, nothing AI about it.” He’d even erased the downloaded data from Five, just in case those files contained any virus.

“Is there any way to find out what he hid?” Bryce glanced up, arching his eyebrows. “Can’t you make him decode it or something?”

“No,” Mac shook his head. “His encryption is so thorough, only he can interpret it. And from what I understand, he pretty much refused all attempts. Ben’s people managed to save some of the data, but without Five to decode it, I don’t think they’ll get anywhere.”

“So…they just erased him?”

Now for the tricky part. “Not exactly.” This was going to be the equivalent of telling someone their lifelong teacher had just committed suicide. “They were downloading his files, preparing to shut him down, when he disappeared.”

Bryce’s eyebrows creased in puzzlement. “Disappeared?”

“Completely. I don’t understand it myself. Some kind of self-deletion or something. Maybe his last chance to hide whatever it was he was keeping from you, I’m not sure.” Mac stood and looked down at Bryce. “If we still had access to him, there might be a chance to decode the data, but I doubt it.”

Bryce looked away for a moment, then picked up his water bottle and stood. “I’m sorry. You all came here expecting to find answers.”

“This isn’t your fault, Bryce.” Mac stepped over beside the stairwell and looked down at the younger man. “After twenty years, you had every right to believe no one was coming. The computer was programmed to record and release all information, that’s what failed.” He paused, hoping Bryce would understand. This was too much responsibility for one young, isolated man to take on his shoulders. “Listen to me,” Mac waited until Bryce looked him in the eyes. “Everything that happened since you were brought here has been out of your hands. Your group, the war, this new colony, none of this is your fault, or your responsibility. What happens from today on is the only thing you need to worry about.”

Reluctantly, Bryce nodded. “I guess we’d better get back to work.”

“Yeah.” Mac had to restrain himself from reaching out and giving his new partner a brotherly pat of reassurance. Too much adjustment in one day might just snap the kid. But deep down, he had really hoped he could have found something in those files, something that would give this kid back some of his life. He’d unloaded the data his own computer downloaded from Five, but Ben might still have some of it. There would be plenty of time in the future to work on them. But right now, they had other concerns. “We’d better get those rooms into shape. I don’t fancy another night on the floor.”

The chairs came up quickly and easily, then were deposited with the rest of the metals they’d removed. Each stateroom had been basically left alone, with the exception of having all bedding, desks and tables removed. Mac had them stored and labeled with his personal property, and by some stroke of luck, they were the easiest crate to retrieve.

He gave Bryce the second cabin, nestled against the end of the ship. Between his door and the outer wall of their only bathroom, was an office-sized section with brackets in the floor and walls perfect for holding a desk and computer terminal. That area, he insisted, was to be Bryce’s personal space, since the other work areas were open and less private. Mac was accustomed to sharing every inch of space with shipmates; his new roommate was going to have to take it slower, having been used to an entire planet of privacy. Their rooms were identically outfitted. Bed frames snapped into place, with the wall acting as a headboard for each, awaiting mattresses and blankets. Closet doors were rehung in the far corners, providing storage in addition to the space still available for personalized furniture and seating in the large rooms. By the time they had the beds back up, both men were exhausted.

“Not bad for a half a day’s work, eh?” Mac reached up and wiped sweat from his forehead, nodding at the transformation.

“We haven’t plumbed the shower yet.” Bryce set his wrench down and nodded toward the bathroom. Long strands of loose hair were plastered to his sweat-soaked face, but his eyes were bright with willingness.

Mac shook his head. “There’s enough reserves to get us cleaned up. As much as I want that shower, it can wait till tomorrow.”

Bryce nodded, glancing around the room. “I think you were right about this thing. It makes a pretty good home office.”

“Yeah, not too bad.” He could just hear Cassandra’s disapproving snort of disgust. “Let’s get cleaned up and get some bedding in those rooms before I fall asleep right here.”

Mac found a change of clothes and carried them into the bathroom. He checked the reserve levels, then set the shower accordingly and stepped into the fine mist. Moisture barely heavy enough to bead up on his smooth skin wafted over his head as he turned the knob that would add soap. Once, a long time ago, he’d taken R&R on Earth and splurged on a real shower, complete with a thick spray of water, and soap that came in a tube, and ran in large, white globs down his body, over his legs, and into a round drain in the floor. It had been an indulgence, but well worth the full days’ pay it cost. Plumbing this bathroom was going to be top priority, first thing tomorrow.

When he stepped out of the shower, toweling off was merely a formality. He pulled on the clean clothes, stuffed the dirty ones into the chute that would suck them over to the cleaning unit to the far left of the galley, and gave Bryce his turn in the bathroom. Some of the reports he’d heard discussed yesterday mentioned a natural hot spring not far from the complex, the perfect remedy for tired muscles. Trouble was, Mac’s muscles were just tired enough to keep him from wanting to trek very far for relief.

After Bryce’s shower, they headed to the complex to retrieve some bedding and locate all of the items he wanted to move into his new home. The colony was humming with activity and sprouting new areas as large, land roving vehicles were assembled and tested. A massive, open garage was being constructed to house the exploration machines and equipment to the north of the complex.

“Hey, how about some dinner? I’m starving.” Mac pointed toward the corridor leading to the mess hall, then anticipated his partner’s hesitation.”Listen, just stay close, and you’ll be fine. Okay?”

Bryce looked down the hall, then back to Mac and nodded slightly. “Yeah, okay.”

The mess hall was crowded, but there was an order to the madness. Lines formed to the left, where various foods were set out, moving down to a table holding several beverages. There were plenty of tables set up around the room, with diners coming and going often enough to ensure places to sit scattered all around. They filled two trays with mostly meats and greens, then Bryce pointed out the better of the two fermented brews one of the cooks had brought up from storage. Finding a relatively empty table wasn’t difficult, but avoiding the looks and questions shot to them from all around proved a bit more tricky.

Bryce was known by everyone, but only a handful were interested enough to ask him questions, most of which he politely answered with as little information as he could. Mac managed to steer most of the conversations other people started, and took over whenever necessary. Getting the kid into this crowd had been a major accomplishment. He wasn’t about to let the misplaced enthusiasm of thirty or more strangers ruin this step forward.

By the time they finished eating, even Mac was tired of the group. He led Bryce out of the mess hall and back down to the basement where he’d stored all of the things he considered personal. The large room had changed since that morning, grown more cluttered with crates and cartons and machinery, but the corner in the back was just as they had left it.

“We’ll get that galley back in shape tomorrow.” Mac glanced around at some of the crates while Bryce gathered up bedding and some clothes.

“I can cook. And if you liked that wine, I know how to make a couple of different beers.” Bryce stuffed some clothes into a sack, cheering up considerably now that they were away from the crowds. “I don’t mind, really. I’ve had to cook every day anyway.”

Mac laughed and shook his head. “Relax, we can take turns or something. I’m partial to quieter dining rooms, too.” One of the crates he was next to was open, so he glanced at the contents. “I didn’t come all this way for some peace and quiet just to eat every meal with three hundred people.”

“Yeah. I never realized how hard that would be.” Bryce stuffed a small computer into the bag holding his clothes and pushed some hair from his face. “Does it get easier, being around people all the time?”

“It will.” Mac smiled, then looked inside the crate again. “Are these books?” Stunned, he reached inside the box and retrieved a small, familiar looking case. He read the label, still disbelieving his eyes. “The complete works of Douchette.”

“Do you read?”

“Whenever I get the chance, which wasn’t often enough during the war.” Mac looked back inside the crate. “Talwin, Choff, The Philosophies of the Ages. Have you read these?” It was a gold mine, all the volumes Mac had wanted to read, but never had the chance to. They were old, but timeless works.

“They were something to do, but Five never wanted to discuss them very much.” Bryce slung his bag over one shoulder and shrugged. “He always said they were useless ramblings, not scientific studies.”

“Nothing that makes you think is useless.” Mac sighed, realizing just how many volumes were in the crate. Volume One of the philosopher Douchette was still in his hand. “Would you mind if I borrowed this?”

“No, help yourself.”

Mac used to love an hour of reading before falling asleep, but it was a luxury he could rarely afford during the war. On the trip out here, he’d gotten back into the habit, but had managed to finish off every volume he could find on board the Kensington three weeks before their arrival. Never in his wildest dreams had he considered the first colony to be so well stocked.

They returned to the shuttle shortly before sunset and got both beds put to rights quickly. Bryce assured him they could plumb the shower easily in the morning, then get the galley and clothes washing unit hooked up as well. By the time they had their next day planned out, they were both exhausted.

Mac went upstairs to secure the door and turn on some of the shuttle’s outdoor lights, just in case the early risers of the group forgot the placement of the huge ship beside their complex. They’d have to form some of the dirt a little better, make a wider walkway up the gangplank, then smooth out the slope as it went around the ship and get some of the dirt away from the small windows on the sleeping-side of their new home. Book still in hand, he returned to the living quarters and flipped off most of the interior lights. Bryce stepped out of the bathroom, looking for all the world to be asleep on his feet. It had been a busy day for both of them.

“I’ll see you in the morning.” Mac held up the book, still intending to get one chapter read before he fell asleep himself.

Bryce nodded, then leaned against the wall and looked at the towel in his hands for a moment. “Listen, I wanted to . . . ” He sighed and met Mac’s gaze. “Thanks. For this.” Both hands gestured at the room. “You didn’t have to.”

“You’re welcome.” Mac smiled.

“Well, good night.”

“Good night.” He waited until Bryce shut the door, then flipped off the last light and took the book into his room. Douchette was a philosopher ahead of his time who had died thirty years before Mac had ever heard of him; his thoughts on war and the fate of mankind had carried him through several moral conflicts. But tonight, the master couldn’t even carry him through an hour.

Mac woke with the book still on his chest. Judging by the stiffness in his back and neck, he hadn’t so much as rolled over all night. With a slight groan, he rolled onto his side and swung both legs off the bed. Sounds reached his ears, coming from the bathroom, as his bare feet hit the cold, metal floor. He was beginning to regret not having stayed up to get the galley working last night. If he couldn’t have a real shower this morning, a cup of coffee would have been nice.

He pulled on a clean pair of shorts and opened his door just as Bryce was coming out of the bathroom. “Hey.” Mac stretched, trying to pop his stiff back. His new deputy nodded, yawning, then leaned against the bathroom door and pushed long hair from his face. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, he looked more tired than he had that night.

“Good morning.”

“Whoa, don’t take this wrong, but you don’t look so good.” Mac stepped closer, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, I just didn’t sleep much last night.” Bryce nodded, then pulled his hair back and tied it into a pony tail using a strip of leather he retrieved from his shirt pocket. “I had a headache.”

Mac studied his face for a moment. “We should probably take it slow today. It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to work out like that myself.” He waited for Bryce to nod his agreement, then stepped over to the bathroom door. “I heard some people talking yesterday about a hot spring not far from here. Whaddaya say we go have a good soak this morning?”

That idea seemed to perk the younger man up immediately. “Okay, yeah.”

“Just give me a minute.” Mac walked into the bathroom and shut the door. If bathing in hot springs was anything like having a sauna, he knew it would be the solution to his stiff muscles. So wrapped up in his plans for a shower, Mac hadn’t even connected the luxury of a hot spring nearby until he’d heard so many of the colonists raving about the large pool on the other side of the hill.

Energized by the promise of a long soak in hot water, he hurried through his morning wash-up, found a clean pair of pants and tank top, then followed Bryce up the stairs and out their front door. The complex was buzzing with morning activity, including a trail of hot water seekers snaking their way behind the complex and over the rocky hill.

After rounding a massive boulder jutting out from the craggy ground, Mac felt a brief touch on his arm. He turned to find Bryce motioning for him to follow. They rounded the boulder, leaving the trail, and began a steep climb up the side of a rough rock wall. A few yards up, and the valley below became visible, with its large, L-shaped body of water its most prominent feature. Steam could be seen even from that distance, rising over the bright blue water and the many bathers within.

Curious but undaunted, Mac followed Bryce around the lip of the cliff, under a stony archway, and onto a small, perfectly flat plateau. In the center, surrounded by clumps of purple grass and fed by a small waterfall, was a hot spring.

“Your own private bath?” Mac grinned, gazing at the blue water. He should have realized Bryce would be uncomfortable around that many people, but his desire for a visit to the hot water had overridden those thoughts.

“This one has a waterfall, perfect for showering. And there are caves in these rocks,” Bryce gestured around the plateau. “It’s safe here.”

Whether he meant safe from the others or from some hidden danger, Mac didn’t know. Right now, the only thing that mattered was getting into that water! Bryce was already peeling off his clothes so Mac followed suit, then eased into the hot water slowly, savoring the feel of so much wetness all over his body. The blue water shimmered with color, almost luminous in the heat.

“Oh, man. This alone was worth six months in space.” Mac slid down onto a rock under the surface, resting against the flat stone. From that position, only his head and neck were above water, free to rest on the grassy edge as he leaned back.

Bryce stepped in on the opposite side of the moderately sized pool and found a rock of his own, adjusting his height so that he, too, could rest against the shore. “Is water really scarce in space? Five kept telling me how precious it was.”

Mac nodded, closing his eyes to relish the feel of the heat massaging tired muscles. “Earth had a crisis years and years ago, before I was born, and lost over half its fresh water. And in space, you have to mine ice from asteroids and some moons.” Mac sighed, wondering how safe it would be to fall asleep in this position. He could probably trust Bryce to pull him up if he went under, unless the kid fell asleep himself. “I’ve only read about these things, natural hot water springs like this.”

“Five said it…”

Mac looked up when Bryce’s voice trailed off and found him gazing at the waterfall. His eyebrows knitted together, then a moment later both hands came up and pushed the hair away from his face. It was a habit Mac was beginning to associate with the younger man’s uncertainty. “I’m sorry. I must sound like an idiot or something, always quoting that machine.” Bryce shook his head and quickly glanced at Mac, then down at the blue water, while his hands fingered a silver shape hanging from the end of a chain around his neck.

“No, you don’t.” Mac sat up straighter and found a rock he could grab with his toes for support while his arms floated freely under the surface.

“That computer was your teacher, and your companion, for a long time. Suddenly a bunch of strangers come down and turn him off without asking, and tell you it’s for your own good.” He shook his head and Bryce looked up. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know many people who could have handled this as well as you are.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m serious. This is only your third day, give it some time.”

Bryce nodded, then leaned back again, resting his head on the shore. “The waterfall is fed from the mountain, if you get too hot.”

Mac glanced at the gentle cascade of blue falling over smooth rocks. The steam where it entered the pool was thicker, wafting up in billowing clouds. With a great sigh, he leaned back again, nestled his neck into the soft grass and closed his eyes. Warm bubbles gurgled against his neck and shoulders, adding to the quiet sound of the slight breeze moving over the rocks above them. Now and again, laughter from far away drifted on the wind from the larger pool in the valley below them. He could see why Bryce preferred this spot, even without the crowd massing in the main pool. There was solitude here, the very peace and quiet he’d come all this way to find. A man could get lost in his thoughts in a place like this, surrounded by jagged rocks like ancient castle walls. There was no real reason to tell anyone else about Bryce’s private pool, what with the long, cumbersome trek up the cliff as the only access. Soon enough the colonists would be spreading out, exploring this new world and making both of them busy with the unenviable task of keeping them all in line. They’d need a place to unwind.

Mac had just decided each and every muscle in his entire body had died and gone to heaven, when he heard more splashing to his left. He turned and found Bryce standing in the pool, splashing the colder water of the falls over his face.

“You okay?” Mac sat up when he noticed Bryce swaying. Alarmed, he hurried the few yards to the younger man. “Hey!”

Bryce nodded. “I just got a little too hot, I think.”

Yeah, I think so.” Mac reached out and took Bryce by the shoulders, ignoring the man’s small reflex that tried to avoid physical contact, and moved him to the shore. “You’re tired and you haven’t eaten, just sit down.”

“I’ll be okay.” Bryce stopped resisting and let himself be helped out of the hot water and onto the grass.

Mac hurried to his pile of clothes, wrapped himself in a towel and brought one to the younger man. “Here, dry off and rest a minute. We’ll get you back down and get some breakfast.”

Bryce nodded again and took the towel, holding it to his face for a minute while Mac retrieved their clothes and began to get dressed.

“What does the M stand for?”

Zipping his pants, Mac looked up. Bryce was looking at the label sticking out of his towel. “Mac. Mac Brennan.”

Bryce looked thoughtful for a moment, then handed the cloth back to its owner. “Mac? Is that short for something?”

“Nope.” Mac shook his head, then pulled on his shirt and handed Bryce his clothes. “My father wasn’t very imaginative. He even named his other son the same thing, or so I was told.” Bryce stopped pulling on his pants and looked up, puzzled. Mac waved it off. “It’s a long story, better told over a few beers when we’re both good and bored. Are you feeling better?” There was still a look of exhaustion around his face, something that might improve with breakfast as long as it was taken far from the crowds.

“I think so.” Bryce stood in order to finish with his pants, then pulled his shirt on and took a deep breath. “We can get some fruit on the way down if we go this way.”

Nodding for him to lead the way, Mac followed his partner closely, keeping an eye on his steadiness. The stress was probably catching up to him, even with Mac’s efforts to make the invasion easier. Bryce showed him another way off the cliff, snaking back behind the large rock face and joining the main trail farther ahead. On the way, they found a grove of low growing shrubs brimming with the round, blue fruit he’d enjoyed the other day. After a quick lesson on how to identify ripeness and the proper method of removing the fruit from thorny branches, they managed to gather enough for a healthy breakfast.

When they got back to the shuttle, Mac left Bryce to prepare the fruit while he retrieved coffee and several bottles of water from the complex. By that afternoon, he vowed to have their new home completely plumbed for fresh water from the shower to the galley. They ate breakfast standing over the counter, and the food and rest seemed to help Bryce catch up to himself, but Mac wasn’t overly impressed with his color.

“Listen, why don’t you just work on your room and take it easy today, huh? Troy and some of the other Engineers tapped into the water lines this morning, they can give me a hand with the hookup.”

Bryce rubbed his forehead, then shrugged slightly. “I’m okay, it’s just a headache.”

“That’s a good enough reason for me.” Mac finished his water and nodded to the staircase. “Let’s get your stuff over here and you can do what you want with it.”

He grabbed a set of anti-gravity cushion handles and led the way back upstairs. The complex was busy as usual, with people still moving their own belongings around, maneuvering for the best place to call their own. It took a little dodging, but they made it to the basement without too many stops. Using the handles made moving large, heavy crates a simple matter of pushing them in the direction you wanted to go. Everything Bryce considered his fit easily into an emptied machine crate, with the exception of a chair made out of a huge tree branch that required a second trip. Once they got his things into the upper level of the shuttle, Mac showed him how to remove the access panel in the floor so they could lower the crate and chair through using the thick cushion of air the handles created.

Bryce only agreed to stay there and work on his own unpacking after Mac agreed that making lunch and dinner would be payment for his inactivity. With the moving handles attached to each of his own crates, Mac had no trouble at all bringing his own belongings over and getting them situated inside the shuttle, but he left the majority on the upper level for the time being. After carting everything inside, he took some tools and joined a few of the engineers still working on adding taps to the fresh water supply. With a little help and some borrowed fittings, he had the Aloft’s sanitary unit and galley hooked up in less than an hour.

By the time he realized how hungry he was, Bryce had lunch prepared.

“Perfect timing, I’m starved.” Mac came down the stairs and into the galley, sniffing the plate of meats and cheese appreciatively.

“I can get the refrigeration unit stocked tomorrow.” Bryce set some breads on the platter, then picked up a sandwich he’d already made and walked to the table, now that they had one. “This is the perfect time of year for the crops, they’re just ripening.”

Mac nodded, making himself a sandwich.

“And the nuts that beer is made of should be ready in a few weeks, if you liked that.” He took a drink from a large glass of water while Mac poured one of his own. “I should try and find the cows, I don’t know if the others have found them yet. They went wild a long time ago, but I can usually find them.”

“Whoa, hold on.” Mac carried his lunch to the table and sat down opposite his roommate. “There’s plenty of time for all of that. We’re not going to starve.” It suddenly dawned on him that they’d eaten all of the meats from yesterday. “Where did you get this?”

Bryce looked down at his food and his voice got quieter for a moment. “I had to go over there.”

Mac knew instantly what he meant by ‘over there’ and nodded at the younger man’s show of courage.

“There’s a side door, right next to the big ovens. I went in that way.” He shrugged, “I don’t think they missed any of it.”

“Nah, that’s what it’s there for. These colonist are very sharing, that’s how they operate. We can stock up from what they have stored, just to get us going. After all, what they’re dipping into was yours as well as what they brought.” Mac bit into his sandwich, savoring the taste of real meat and cheese. Processed, hormone enhanced beef had an after-taste that no science had yet managed to eradicate to his satisfaction. This was another plus to his new life: real food! The cheese was aged, with a strong, robust flavor that complimented the meat perfectly, blending with its juices instead of overpowering them. He’d added a thick slice of tomato and a green, leafy vegetable that had the look and feel of lettuce, but tasted spicy.

Bryce had finished his sandwich and was leaning back in the chair, holding his half empty glass of water in one hand and rubbing his temples with the fingers of the other. “Those big vehicles they’re putting together . . . Are they going to use them to start exploring soon?”

Mac swallowed the last bite of the sandwich and nodded while he wiped his hands on a small towel. “It’ll take them another week or more to get everything ready, but yes, they’ll be exploring soon. I have a mapping utility in the control center upstairs, so we can keep tabs on what they find.”

Bryce nodded, looking down at the table. “They’re going to look for the others, aren’t they?”

With a quiet sigh, Mac sat forward, resting both arms on the table. The full extent of what those ten years of isolation must have been like were clearly displayed on the younger man’s face, showing through his attempts to hide them. “If there’s anyone out there to find, I’m sure someone will, eventually.” Bryce’s jaw clenched as he stared at the table, refusing to meet Mac’s gaze. His own wish to find the answers to this mystery were outweighed by the pain apparent on the kid’s face. “Bryce, in all that time, did you ever see anything, anything at all, that made you think there was anyone around?”

“No.” Bryce glanced up and shook his head. “Nothing.”

“And you never traveled, never left the complex for a few weeks to explore?”

Another shake of his head, this time more determined and quick. “No. It was too dangerous. Five said that . . . ” His voice trailed off as he looked away.

“So, you don’t know anything about them leaving? When, or why they did?”

“No. But they must have left.” Bryce’s eyebrows creased and his face grew puzzled. “They had to have left, it’s the only explanation.” He looked up suddenly, meeting Mac’s gaze with a look of anger and pain. “But why? Why would they? Everything they had is still here! Everything they needed, everything they built. It’s all still here!” He swallowed and looked away, pushing some hair from his face.

“Bryce…” Mac leaned closer, keeping his voice quiet in the hope that his new friend would calm down. “It’s possible they had to leave because of Five.”

“No, they left me.” Bryce shook his head, but looked helplessly at Mac. “They could have turned Five off just like you did, but they left. They left me.”

“Listen to me, they didn’t leave you. Whatever the reason, it couldn’t have been personal, not like that.” He felt so helpless. No one should ever be left alone like this. “We don’t even know what happened. So far we’re all guessing, and it’s getting us nowhere.”

Bryce closed his eyes tightly and took a deep breath, nodding once. When he opened them again, he looked tired. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get angry. I just–I don’t understand, that’s all. I’ve never understood why.”

Mac sighed. He could no more guarantee they’d find the truth than he could fly through solid rock. Even if they did, the reasons for Bryce’s memory loss could turn out to be fatal. What if the truth couldn’t be handled? Where Lise and the others saw a puzzle with a piece they could make fit, Mac saw a war-wound. A near fatal hit that needed time, and protection, to heal.

“I wish I could promise you we’ll find all the answers, but I can’t.”

Bryce shook his head slowly. “It’s okay. You didn’t come down here to solve someone else’s problems.” He shrugged very slightly and looked up.

Mac swallowed, fighting the tightening of his jaw muscles at the memory of his meeting the other night. “And you didn’t wake up three days ago and expect several hundred invaders, but you’re adapting. It’s what we humans do.” He smiled and picked up the plates. “Now, let’s concentrate on getting this place unpacked, and let the rest worry about itself.”

With the galley now plumbed for water from outside, Bryce was able to wash their lunch dishes in the double sink while Mac drained the last of the fuel into the storage batteries. Someday, generations from now, the people living on Oblivion would be using new forms of energy as the solar and nuclear batteries brought down during colonization finally died out. But for his lifespan, Mac would never have to worry about that kind of adaptation. After a lifetime spent in space, where your very survival depended on man-made structures and machines, he wasn’t sure he could ever make that big of an adjustment.

Back downstairs, Bryce’s mood had brightened considerably. He helped Mac unload the furniture and get it into place in the temporarily crowded living quarters. Two couches formed a cozy seating area with a low, square table in the end of the U they formed. Off to one side, resting against the outside wall of Mac’s room, was the chair Bryce had brought, fashioned out of the spoon-branch from a tree with four carved legs that set the chair low to the ground. Mac had a few more tables and lamps, adding to the overhead lighting that was kept slightly dimmed in order for the computer panels in the room to be easily seen.

Opposite their seating area was a work table large enough for both of them, with matching chairs Mac had purchased years ago, carved out of a soft wood grown on one of the forested orbital stations ringing Mars. Their intricate carvings and rich, red color belied their durability and strength. They had two spare tables, perfect for desks, that Mac placed in the area just outside Bryce’s room, making him a semi-private office. There was a terminal outlet there, giving the younger man both access to the shuttle’s entire system and his own private data storage and drive space.

The dining room table was another of Mac’s favorite purchases, one he’d kept in storage for years, waiting for the right place to put it. Large enough to seat six, with a brushed metal top, it sat perfectly in the dining area opposite the counter bordering the galley. At the other end of the kitchen area, part of the counter formed a bar with three built-in seats jutting out from the floor.

The beds in each room were the only things fixed to the floor, but they left plenty of room for small tables, dressers, storage units and a comfortable chair in each one. Mac admired the wood Bryce’s furniture was carved from, but when asked, he couldn’t remember where they had come from or who had made them. There was a pattern carved on each of the pieces that matched a necklace he wore, but he had no clear memory of the origins of the jewelry, either.

“I’ve always had it.” Bryce shrugged, holding the silver metal between two fingers. “I think it was given to me, because I can remember someone’s voice, an older man’s I think, telling me never to take it off.”

Mac nodded, studying the piece. It was intricately fashioned out of a silver metal, shaped in a pattern that looked as if two snakes were eating each other’s tails. “I think I’ve seen this pattern before.” He looked at the carved drawers and desk, where a very similar pattern was etched. “It was in a book I was reading, about ancient battle strategies.” He shook his head, able to recall only the image, not the name. “I can’t think of what it’s called, though.”

They finished unloading all the large furniture and shelves just before sunset. As badly as he wanted to go outside and enjoy the sight, Mac’s desire for a long, indulgent shower won over. Bryce found what he said he’d need to make dinner, so Mac gave in to his desire, peeling off his clothes before he was even in the bathroom.

To accommodate the burden of a long space voyage, the Aloft was fitted with a spacious sanitary unit, sporting a standard-sized shower with room to move around in. Mac always found that ridiculous, since nowhere is water rationed and recycled more studiously than during a long space exploration. But now, the logic behind the design no longer mattered. He had water!

Just because he could, Mac turned on the taps before stepping inside, and adjusted the temperature to suit his needs. Blue water, thick and wet, shot out of a shower head previously designed to mist the precious liquid. After a few adjustments to the pressure, Mac stepped inside and positioned himself so the spray slammed into the top of his head, sending water cascading down his entire body. Rivers of bright blue ran down his smooth chest, over his stomach, then parted to race down both muscular legs. He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, staring at the sight of so much water running over him, and he didn’t care. It was the most incredible sensation he’d ever known, right now on an even par with sex.

After some time standing there watching the water run over his legs and off his feet, Mac turned around and let the spray hit him between the shoulders to massage out some residual stiffness. He saw what looked like a small rock on the corner shelf. It was bubbling as the water hit it, sending a white, pleasant-smelling foam down the side of the shower. He reached out and picked up the rock, feeling the smooth, soapy surface.

“Well I’ll be damned.” Cautiously at first, Mac rubbed the rough-looking stone over his arm and watched the soft lather develop quickly and easily. The rock was soft on his skin and smelled clean and fresh, but more importantly, the soapy foam ran down his bare skin with an almost sensual softness, just like the kind he’d used that time back on Earth.

By the time he reluctantly ended the experience, Mac was quite sure he’d just taken the longest shower of his entire life. Only the promise of many more to come gave him the strength of will needed to turn the water off and get himself toweled dry. When he came out of the bathroom, dressed in his towel, his nose picked up a delectable scent. Bryce was still in the galley, stirring something in a large pot over the heating unit, so he went into his room to put some clothes on. He hadn’t fully unpacked everything, but a comfortable pair of loose pants and one of his old military shirts were easily found.

When he came back out, two places were set at opposite sides of the dining room table.

“Hey, what smells so good?” Mac sampled the air again appreciatively.

Bryce carried a large bowl to the table and shrugged. “Just soup. None of this stuff really has a name or anything.” He returned to the galley and pulled a large pitcher of water from the refrigeration unit, carrying that to the table before he sat down. “I don’t think anyone ever named the food. Either that, or Five never told me what it was.”

Mac filled his bowl with the thick soup and felt his stomach rumble. “What’s in a name, anyway, when something smells this good?” The meal consisted of a dark meat with the same consistency of the beef from lunch, but with a spicier, almost hot taste to it. Complimenting the meat were several different legumes of various shapes and colors, and small, red potatoes.

“I guess when you have no one to tell, names are pretty useless.” Bryce filled his own bowl only half way, then poured a large glass of water.

“But I can just see myself trying to explain what everything is without being able to call it something.”

Mac nearly laughed as he swallowed a mouthful of the succulent meal. “I guess that could be confusing. You’ll just have to name things, then. Or, if you left them to it, I’m sure the colonists could come up with names for just about everything they find.”

“The soap, did you find that?”

The complete change in subject took Mac a second to register. “Oh, yeah, I did.”

“I forgot to tell you what it was.” Bryce’s eyebrows arched apologetically. “I know it just looks like a rock, but it’s the best soap around.”

“Hey, I could have rubbed myself with sand in there and not cared.” Mac smiled with the memory of all that water, running over his body. “You don’t know what a luxury that is.”

Bryce laughed shortly, shaking his head. “I believe you, now.”

Okay, so maybe he had taken a very long time in the shower, but he could be forgiven for indulging. One day soon, he was sure, it would all be second nature. Hot springs to soak in anytime you wanted, a shower with as much running water and soap as you could stand, and some of the best food he’d ever tasted, all right there for the asking. It was a paradise.

So why had all of Bryce’s people left it?

Mac helped himself to a second bowl of soup and noticed Bryce hadn’t eaten very much. He still looked tired and a little pale, and was gazing into his water glass with a vacant look. “Are you feeling okay?”

Bryce shook himself a little and looked up. “Yeah, I’m fine.” One hand came up to move some hair from front to back. “I’m just tired, that’s all. Things are catching up.”

“I’m sure they are.” Most people Mac knew would have cracked under these conditions; this kid just got tired. “Leave those, I’ll take care of it.” He held out a hand to prevent Bryce from clearing the dishes.

Reluctantly, he stepped back from the table and nodded. “I think I’m gonna turn in, then, if you don’t mind.”

“No, that’s a good idea.” Mac reached for his water and glanced around their new living room. “I’m pretty beat myself, actually. I’ll try to keep it down out here.”

Bryce stopped at the bathroom door and turned around. “That’s okay. I mean . . . ” He looked away for a moment as if trying to find the right words. “I don’t mind. I kinda like hearing someone else making noise. You know?”

Mac smiled a little, understanding what he meant. “Yeah, I think I do.” The silence of space could never be as quiet as the sound of being alone.

He waited until his partner was in the bathroom, then gathered up the dishes and washed them, again enjoying the use of both sinks and abundant running water. Even the sound of it was soothing as it poured from the nozzle into the metal sink. One of the ships he’d been stationed on had tried to use recorded sounds of running water in the officer’s lounge to instill a sense of peace and calm to the off-duty fighter pilots. All it had accomplished was an increased use of the urinals and several trips to the med lab for bladder infections, but the commanders had meant well.

Mac cleaned up, stored the leftover soup, then checked the shuttle over before calling it a night himself. Aware of Bryce’s new-found security, he tried not to be completely silent in his round of the doors and monitors. After a quick wash in the bathroom, he turned off the last light and went into his room, pushing past the unopened boxes till he reached the bed. A small lamp and night table were set up and working, so he turned off the bright overhead light, took off everything but his boxers, and climbed gratefully into bed with the book he’d wanted to read last night.

The power cell on the handheld unit came to life without hesitation, displaying the book’s contents and page numbers. Mac set his pillow against the wall that served as a headboard and leaned back, scanning the chapter titles. He flipped the display to page one of the first chapter and began to read Douchette’s views on the evolution of thought.

Mac was two chapters in when he heard the shout.

“No!”

He tossed the book aside and was off the bed in a flash. “Bryce?”

“They’re coming!”

“Bryce!” Mac burst into the room and found the younger man sitting up in bed, staring at him wide-eyed for an instant. “Are you all right?”

Bryce nodded quickly and leaned forward, running a shaking hand over his hair. “I’m sorry, it was just a nightmare.”

Mac sighed, giving his heart time to slow down as the adrenaline peaked. “It sounded pretty serious.” The kid glanced up and shook his head a little, smiling apologetically. He was very pale.

“I don’t even remember it.” Bryce shrugged, then coughed.

“You don’t look too good.” Mac reached out and put a hand on Bryce’s forehead.

Startled, he pulled back. “I’m fine.” He started to say more, but another round of coughs stopped him.

“You’re burning up.” Mac put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder, ignoring his attempts to flinch away, then placed a hand on the fevered head again.

“Damn, I should have seen this sooner.”

“It’s nothing.” Bryce’s voice was losing some volume. A shiver coursed over him and he cleared his throat.

“It’s something.” Mac straightened up. “I’m going to call over to Dr. Weller, then get you to the med lab.” He went back into his room for some pants.

“No, I’m fine.”

His pants and a shirt were draped over one of the unpacked boxes. “Bryce, you’re running a fever. I should have seen this coming. It’s common when you haven’t been exposed to anything in ten years or more.” He fastened the pants as he walked back to the other room.

Bryce was still on the bed, hugging the blanket up to his shoulders as he shivered, shaking his head. “I’ll be fine.”

“Yes, you will. Once we get you over to the complex and let the doctor have a look at you.” It was just going to add to the stress of being sick, forcing Bryce back over there among all those strangers. At least the majority of them would be asleep by now. “I’ll be right back.” Ignoring Bryce’s quiet protests, Mac went into the hall, then maneuvered his way around the mess of crates and stacks of things still waiting to be put away, until he reached the large bank of computer terminals near the workbench. It took only minutes to find someone awake at the complex’s main communications section who could alert Lise of their impending arrival.
When he returned to Bryce’s room, he found a pair of pants on the floor near the chair.

“I’m all right. It’s just a cold or something.” Bryce sighed, swaying slightly on the bed.

“Yes, I’m sure it is.” Mac reached out for the blanket he was clutching and pulled it away gently. “But your body hasn’t had a cold in a long time, has it?” Reluctantly, the blanket was let go and Bryce reached out for the pants. “I’m sure, thanks to that, you’ll react well to some antibiotics and get over this in no time.”

With the pants on, Bryce reached for the blanket again and Mac helped wrap it around his shoulders. Since he’d been sleeping in shorts and a shirt, that should be warm enough for the brief walk from the shuttle to the complex. He took him by the arms and helped him upstairs, feeling only a slight resistance now to being touched. But when the door slid open to the clear night air, the young man froze.

“It’s okay, we’ll be there in a minute.” Even in the artificial lights, Mac could see Bryce’s face drain of all color. He put an arm around his friend and hurried them both down the ramp and across the grounds to the side door. Bryce nearly collapsed when they entered the hall.

“Brennan, what’s the matter?” Lise was there, rushing down the corridor to meet them.

“He has a fever, chills, a slight cough.” Mac nodded for her to walk ahead and lead them to the med lab instead of taking Bryce’s other arm. “I should have seen this sooner.”

They entered the medical lab and Lise pointed to a side exam room. “Of course, I wasn’t even thinking. We’ve exposed him to things he hasn’t been around in a long time. Even without any of us experiencing symptoms right now.”

Mac helped Bryce onto the exam table, but as he straightened up, the younger man grabbed his shirt. “I’m not sick, I’ll be fine.”

“Bryce, just let her check you out, okay?” There was a flash of fear in those lavender eyes that knotted Mac’s stomach. “I’ll be right out there.”

The hand clutching his shirt let go, and Mac allowed Lise to usher him out of the room and into the main laboratory area.

“He’ll be fine.”

Mac turned to find Ben standing at the door, Rob Eckland beside him. “Yeah.” He stepped closer to the doorway and nodded at
Rob, feeling his jaw muscles tighten. “He’ll be fine.”

“Has he said anything yet?”

“Rob, this kid’s only been with Brennan for two days, give it time, for Christ’s sake.”

Mac looked from Ben to Rob, trying to unclench his jaw. “If Bryce has anything to tell me that needs sharing, I’ll let you know. Anything else we talk about is between him and me.”

“He’s not your little kid brother, Brennan. We have a right to know what the hell happened here.” Rob shot an angry look over Mac’s shoulder.

“He was here, so he knows. One way or the other. How do you know it wasn’t him who encrypted all that data? He could have even forged the medical records, making us fall for that amnesia bit.”

Anger flared through Mac’s entire body, but he held it in check with practiced skill, letting his voice take on an edge. “Whatever happened to them, it hasn’t happened to any of you. I should think you have more important things on your mind now that you’re here.”

“Yet. Hasn’t happened yet.” Rob made sure both men heard the distinction.

“Rob, there could be a thousand explanations for the disappearance of the first colony. We’ve been over this already.” Ben quietly tried to inject some reason.

“The answer is right in front of us, and you two refuse to see it!” Rob made little attempt to control the volume of his voice in the quiet room.

“We’re scientists, all of us, with one exception. It’s our job to investigate the unknown and use any means available to find the answers. This planet, whether you want to call it Delta 9 or Oblivion, belongs to us. We have a responsibility to the people who sent us here, and the people who might come after us, to find out all we can.”

Mac’s control did an immediate about-face. “You people make me sick!” Though his voice was under some control, his anger came shining through. “You preach about being concerned with the preservation of humanity and all other life forms you happen upon, pride yourselves on discovery and education, and yet you treat everything like it’s some kind of laboratory for you to play with and experiment on.”

“Brennan…”

“No,” Mac shook off Ben’s restraining hand and held up an accusing finger. “You came here to play scientist and discover new things. That’s fine. But you’re forgetting that Bryce isn’t one of the alien things you found on this new world. He just happend to be here when you came down. You think you get to play around with everything to your heart’s content. Well, I’ve got news for you, Eckland, he’s not a mystery for you to solve or a puzzle piece you can try to make fit. He’s one of us! And if he needs a big brother to look out for his interests, then he’s got one.”

“He’s not one of us, Brennan, any more than you are.”

Incredulous, Mac rolled his eyes, trying to find some hint of sanity in the room. “So you think that somehow gives you power? Some kind of right to do whatever you deem appropriate in the name of almighty science?”

“He has a duty, to us and the people he came here with. Hiding behind whatever the hell’s keeping him from remembering isn’t a good enough excuse!”

“That’s pretty cold, Eckland. Why don’t you put yourself in his place for just a minute? I bet you can’t even imagine, for one instant, what it must feel like. You can’t, can you?” Mac paused, daring Rob to answer. “Well, I can.”

“Stop this.” Ben stepped between the two men, glaring first at Rob, then at Mac. “We’ve had this discussion before, and I’m not changing my mind about it. Rob, we all agreed to leave this issue alone for now.”

“For now.” Rob shot a look of finality at Mac, then turned and stormed down the hallway.

“Don’t be too hard on him, Brennan.” Ben sighed, shaking his head. “We found some pretty strange things, and the tension is running a little high tonight.”

“Strange things?”

“Yes, in the south wing we– ”

“Excuse me,” Lise stepped out of the exam room and marched to the two men. “If you two are quite finished, I have a patient who needs some rest.” She gave them both a disapproving stare. “We’re both tired of listening to you men argue.”

Mac quickly glanced back at the room, with its heavy curtain drawn. He’d tried to keep his voice down, but Rob had made no such effort. Even whispering, in that room sounds were sure to have traveled. The last thing he wanted to do was add to Bryce’s fear of these people, but right now he couldn’t help feeling he shouldn’t leave the kid alone around them.

“How is he?”

“He has the flu.” Lise sighed, shoving a diagnostic unit into her pocket.

“I’ll leave you two alone.” Ben nodded into the room. “Brennan, if you have a few minutes, I’d like to show you something in the south wing’s zoology lab.”

“Yeah, okay.” Mac agreed for the sake of getting the commander to leave, then turned back to Lise. “Is he going to be okay?”

“Yes, he will. Bryce hasn’t been exposed to the average viruses and germs that plague us all in a long time, though he has had them in the past. His body remembers the influenza virus and what to do about it.” She sighed, then smiled reassuringly. “He needs rest and some antibiotics to help bolster his immune system. I’ll be happier when that fever goes down, but I don’t see any cause for worry.”

“Good. That’s good.” Mac felt the anger wash out of his body, replaced by a large sense of relief. “I should have seen this earlier, but I thought it was just all this stress catching up.”

“He appears to be adjusting pretty well. How is he taking this new friendship with you?”

“Better than I thought he might. It helps to be away from the crowds, to have time to adjust to it all.”

“Has he said anything? Does he talk to you about the others?”

Mac stared at her, disbelieving. “You’re still on Eckland’s side, aren’t you?”

“No, I just–”

“I used to think you were one of the good guys, Lise.” He’d always felt doctors were the last of them, the knights in white who held life as sacred above all else.

“Don’t, Mac. You know I don’t want that any more than you do.” Lise lowered her voice, shooting a glance over Mac’s shoulder. “We all know why you took him on, it’s just hard to be patient.”

Mac shook his head, puzzled. “You all know what?”

“We know you, Mac. Some of us, anyway. Enough to know that keeping Bryce with you certainly isn’t sexual, and that leaves only one other conclusion. And it makes sense, befriending him like this. I’m sure in time it will work and some of his memory will come back as he begins to trust–”

“Wait a minute.” Mac raised both hands, then for a moment couldn’t find the words to express his irritation. “What makes you think there are only two possible reasons for my wanting this kid as a deputy? What about friendship? What about a sense of big-brotherly protection? What about seeing a young, scared kid who has no idea what it’s like to be around other humans, who needed a friend on his side?”

Lise sighed and took a pose Mac knew all too well. He hated condescension.

“Look, you people gave me a job to do down here, and I have every intention of doing that job right. What you see as some subject you can dig into and mess around with, I see as a human being. Someone with more knowledge about this place than any of us. I see a young man who’s been the victim of some pretty lousy circumstances, who has information, talent and skills that I’d be a fool to ignore.” Lise’s attitude wasn’t changing, and Mac could feel his frustration level bubbling up. His voice darkened and grew more quiet. “And if you think, for one minute, I’m going to let you or your buddies try to get inside his head and pry loose whatever demons he’s managed to lock up, you’d better think again.”

“I told you, I don’t agree with that method.” Lise looked away, her face reddening slightly. “I’m ashamed to admit I ever thought of it in the first place. It goes against everything I stand for as a doctor. In fact, just seeing people here again might stimulate his memories over the next few weeks.”

Mac took a deep breath, trying to force his anger back down. He hoped Bryce couldn’t hear them from behind the heavy curtain. Maybe he was even sleeping now?

“I’m sorry, Mac. I had no right to assume anything without speaking to you about it. It’s just . . .I feel so helpless right now. Three hundred people came here counting on a new life, and all we found for them was a ghost town.” She looked past Mac toward the exam room. “That first night I let it all get to me and almost became the thing we all fear most. And, as much as I would still like to know what happened, none of us has any right to sacrifice a life to find the answers.”

Mac swallowed, accepting her apology. “Can I talk to him?”

“Yes.” Lise took a deep breath and nodded. “He seems very uncomfortable here, emotionally. I can’t say that I blame him.” They began walking toward the curtained room. “Just give him a few hours to rest, let me see if I can get that fever down, then you can take him back. I’m sure he’ll be much more comfortable away from here.”

The curtain pulled back in response to their approach, revealing an exam table and two walls of medical instruments. Bryce was on the bed, still wrapped in his blanket, with a monitor attached to his left forearm, feeding him intravenous fluids. He was still pale, and his hair was damp with sweat.

“I told you this wouldn’t be all that bad, huh?” Mac smiled down at his friend, hoping he hadn’t been able to hear what taken place.

“Can we go back now?” Bryce turned to Mac, his voice barely a whisper, but made no move to sit up.

“Listen, I want you to relax here for a few hours, okay? I have to go talk to the commander about some things, then we’ll go back.”

“You could at least rest here until morning,” Lise added.

Bryce sighed heavily and closed his eyes. He seemed about to argue, then nodded. “Okay.”

Mac turned to Lise. “I have to go meet Ben in the zoology lab, can you…?”

“I’ll stay right here.” Lise smiled and patted Mac’s arm. “Trust me, he’ll be fine.”

He didn’t, really, but he’d have to. At least for now. Lise had, after all, admitted her mistake. She could earn a second chance, but she had some proving to do. “I don’t want Rob anywhere near him.”

“Don’t worry, Mac. It’s after midnight, no one else even knows you two are here, and they wouldn’t care if they did. It’s just Eckland doing all the complaining right now, and he’s in the south wing with Ben.”

Mac nodded once, then quietly left the med lab after one last look at Bryce. He was sleeping, somewhat uneasily, but might not even know Mac wasn’t right there until he got back. The south wing zoology lab was quite a walk, through the west wing he was in, down the large corridor that spanned the entire main building, then into the adjacent section and all the way to the end. The complex was quiet, with only every third corridor light on for the night. Now and again, he passed a room with people still busily working on something they’d found or needed to assemble, quiet voices discussing this or that possibility or placement.

When he arrived at his destination, he found Rob and Ben inside the main holding area, conferring with their head veterinarian, Katherine Miller. She was the first to see him come inside.

“Brennan, nice job planting that shuttle yesterday.” Katherine smiled, her eyes sparkling in the low lights. “I’m still shaking dust out of my hair.”

Mac grinned and shrugged. “Hey, I warned everyone. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a real shower now. Does wonders for the dust.”

“So does that hot spring.” She winked and let her smile take over her face.

He’d always liked her, at least in the six months since they met. Very professional around her charges, checking the embryonic cattle and other imported animals almost hourly during the long flight, but they’d found occasion to enjoy each other’s company now and again.

“Mac, how’s Bryce?”

“He’s fine, Ben. Just the flu.” Mac shot a glance at Rob, but the man said nothing. “What is it you wanted to show me?”

“It’s over here.” Katherine motioned to the far wall and led the way. “I was having these tables and crates moved, so I could get this lab set up, when we found them.”

Mac followed her and Ben to the end of the laboratory, then peered over the table. Deep in the titanium wall, three ragged gashes ripped through the metal in yard long marks.

“Those aren’t the only ones.” Ben pointed to another wall. “We found two more over there, then some scrape marks in the floor near the exit.”

“So, they brought something in here that didn’t want to stay.” Mac shrugged. “Isn’t that what this lab is for?”

Katherine inhaled deeply, then let it out. “Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to explain here. This lab would have been used, and will be used, to study native animals.”

“Whatever it was, it was powerful enough to gouge out the metal walls and floor. And so far, we can’t find anything in the records big enough to inflict this kind of damage.” Ben gestured around the room. “And over there, the computer terminal has been ripped into as well.”

Mac shook his head and tried hard not to roll his eyes. Instead, he rubbed them tiredly. “Ben, you know as well as I do those records are incomplete.” A sudden thought shot through him and he looked up, relaxing when he found Rob still in the room with them. “Look, we’ve only been here for three days.” He paused, glaring at Rob, but got no rebuttal. “So far so good, right? Now, if Katherine isn’t overly concerned about this, then I don’t see any reason for anyone else to be.” Mac looked at her and received a smile and a nod. “She’s the expert when it comes to this sort of thing.”

“I’ve been trying to tell you, Ben, this could have been caused by anything. Even the most docile animal, when frightened, is capable of tremendous acts of violence.”

Ben nodded and looked at Rob. “Have you taken samples of the metal yet?”

Mac held up a hand, interrupting Eckland’s response. “Listen, it’s late. I’m going to get some sleep.” He didn’t wait for anyone’s reaction.

During the long trek back to the med lab, Mac tried not to think about the marks. Tried not to think about what kind of animal could gouge large chunks out of titanium walls. There were a few things he could remember, from childhood horror stories, capable of that kind of destruction. But that was fiction. He preferred philosophy.

Besides, the only thing Mac Brennan ever really feared, was Man.

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10 thoughts on “Two-fer Tuesday

  1. Well, it better be in the next chapter. šŸ˜€

    There are several published novels out there where this kind of build up keeps going on and on, so that I’m frustrated and angry by the time the reveal comes. I’d throw the book across the room except I’m so stinkin’ stubborn.

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